FRIDAY, November 3rd
Avraham is famously compared with Noach, who preceded him by ten generations. In this comparison, Avraham comes across very favorably, as someone who tried to avert God’s punishment of others, standing up for strangers, whereas Noach, for all his righteousness, failed to save anyone besides his own family. It is interesting, however, to note that in one respect, Noach may have been Avraham’s superior.
Avraham, as the embodiment of Chesed, love that overflows all boundaries, showed surprising kindness to those who were distant from him, offering hospitality to strangers, standing up for the residents of Sedom, going to war to free his estranged nephew, Lot, from captivity. At the same time, he seemed to have difficulty in his relationships with those closest to him. Not only did he leave behind his father and brother in Haran, and later Lot, who had come with him, twice he allowed his own wife to pass for his sister and to be taken captive by powerful kings who wished to marry her, he sent away his older son Yishmael, and almost killed his second son Yitzhak. Later in life, Avraham sent away his younger children with gifts, so that they not inherit with Yitzhak. Though Avraham was a righteous man, motivated by a desire to serve God, and even acted in some of these instances at God’s command, it does not change the fact that his Chesed, his love for strangers, did not always manifest so positively in his closest relationships. In this, Avraham was like many great leaders who are able to manifest tremendous love for humanity in general, but have troubled relationships with their own family.
In this one respect Noach, Avraham’s opposite in many ways, may have been superior. Noach, though he was unable to save humanity, was able to keep his own family intact. Though he curses his son Ham in response to Ham’s transgression, he does not send him away, as Avraham sent away Yishmael, Lot, and his younger sons.
Often in life, it can feel one has to choose between emulating Noach and emulating Avraham. Do I focus on making a living and providing for my own family, or do I focus on making the world a better place? Do I make my Shabbat dinners an open tent, like Avraham and Sarah’s, where all are welcome? Or, do I reserve Shabbat dinner for quality time with my loved ones? Do I dedicate my tzedakah dollars to the needs of my local Jewish community, or to serving the needs of all humanity?
There can be such a thing as being too charitable—too focused on the larger good. I read of one famous rabbi of the last century, whose name I won’t mention, who was a tremendous baal chesed, known for his generosity to others, but left his own widow and children impoverished. On the other hand, if we focused exclusively on our own family, we risk neglecting our responsibilities to our community, our nation, and to humanity.
May we each be blessed with the wisdom to distinguish when we are veering too far to one side or the other of this spectrum, and to recognize those moments when we are called upon to sacrifice our own closest relationships for the greater good, as well as those moments when we must set aside our concern for the larger world to focus on the needs of our own family and loved ones.
Rabbi Garth Silberstein